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Why Orientation Class?

 In Blog

Hello all. I’m Headmaster Galahad or, as some of you know me, Ben, or as others might know me, “that guy who is kind of funny in long videos about Voicethread.” A week ago today we held our first Live Orientation Webinar of the fall semester, and the day before that we launched our overall Orientation Class for the first time. Now that we’ve had the last week to observe the Orientation Class and absorb the feedback from our students and parents, I thought I would write this blog about how we feel the Orientation Class has gone. I will try to keep this blog post shorter than the Orientation Class itself (self-zing!).

The Orientation Class was built to immerse our students, new and returning, fully into our learning platform during the week before real classes begin and to uncover students’ technical issues (and, let it be said, “tendency to not read all of the directions” issues) during the pre-session week. In prior years, these would often linger to emerge randomly during the semester and then take learning time away from our students and teaching time away from our teachers. Our goal was to preempt this familiar pattern and ensure that all students have the tools they need to succeed.

It was important for us to do this for a number of reasons. We have changed or upgraded a number of our technologies this summer and need all students to be aware of how to access and use these features. We also generally wanted to provide better scaffolding for success in our classes (and with associated technology) than in the past. This all meant we had to introduce the kids to a whole lot of new concepts and processes in basically a week, and an asynchronous classroom with 24/7 access was the best way to do that.

Also, the key idea of the Orientation Class is, thanks to the way the system is built, we’ll now know forever who has finished the tutorial and obtained the skills they need for success. Students will never have to go through these tutorials again. If they ever need a refresher, though, the class is there for them. As we add new processes and tech tools, students may need to return to the class to earn a new badge by mastering the necessary skills, but that’s it. Once oriented, always oriented.

At this point we’ve had a handful of parents write in to share their feedback on the Orientation Class. Of those few, about half (and their students) have loved the Orientation, and the other half have shared their concerns about the length of the Orientation (see: self-zing!).

I think these mixed reviews are mostly due to the fact that we failed to clearly explain to parents what we were changing and why. Hence, this post. So, let me share the “method behind the madness.”

Our old 1-hour webinar orientations alone would not have led to the success we are seeing in our first class webinars this semester for the following reasons:

  • Learning styles weren’t equally supported. People learn in different ways, so a significant portion of our users didn’t retain information we previously provided only in audio-based webinars.
  • Barrier to entry is real, part 1. When students couldn’t make something work in a class, some students simply bailed on it. Who has time for tech support when homework is due?
  • Barrier to entry is real, part 2. Some students didn’t explore certain assignment types and tech tools because we weren’t providing enough instruction and support to ease them into using the tool.
  • Too much info at one time. No one could retain all of the information from a 2-hour live webinar if we did try to cover everything there. There’s just no way to do it effectively.
  • Reading directions is hard. Even when we wrote out specific directions, a lot of students glossed over them, which leads to a number of challenges. Students need to practice skills to absorb them.

Under the new system, we are seeing a level of engagement that is basically unprecedented for G3. Webinars have had more microphone participation than I’m used to and far fewer technical issues than past “first day of class” experiences. More students are doing Voicethreads, writing and responding to forum posts, and viewing BrainPOP and Discovery Education videos. Certainly, I am not getting as many last minute inquiries about BrainPOP class codes and Discovery Education login failures. Also, students who have struggled to figure out how to read all of the directions in forums have been resolving the issue through the Orientation help system, rather than asking their teachers about “missing checkmarks.” So this is all good, and preserves class time for real learning.

We will be soliciting feedback on this system at the end of the semester, when everyone has had time to reflect on the effect of the orientation process of their students’ overall G3 experience. That said, please do feel free to email us your thoughts at any time. We are very interested in your feedback.

Benjamin Smith is also known as Headmaster Galahad at  He teaches history, science, and social science at G3.

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